World War II broke out, and that was just what the St. Louis Browns needed. They built a team of aging ballplayers, eccentric pitchers and 4-F infielders. The strategy worked in 1944, setting up the all-St. Louis Streetcar World Series.
The Browns, something of a laughingstock (St. Louis: “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League” the ditty went.), won their only A.L. pennant in that last full year of the war. They started fast and finished the season 89-65, just one game ahead of a charging Detroit Tigers club.
According to the St. Louis Browns Historical Society web site, the 1944 team was “a patched-together fabric of those ineligible for military service, virtual misfits, alcoholics and retreads who somehow managed to win games.”
The war depleted baseball of some great talent. Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams was away from 1943-45. Bob Feller, ace of the Cleveland Indians, missed 1942-44. The New York Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio (1943-45) also missed time. There were many others. Teams had to make-do.
The Browns needed all they could get from, among others, Sig Jakucki, he of the great name and the improbable story. Jakucki, out of Camden, N.J., went 0-3 with an 8.71 ERA for the 1935 Browns. He didn’t pitch again in the majors until the Browns re-signed him before the ’44 campaign. The right-hander proceeded to go 13-9 with a 3.55 ERA. His final start, a 5-2 victory against the New York Yankees, clinched the A.L. pennant.
Shortstop Vern Stephens, the Browns’ top hitter, led the team in home runs (20) and RBI (109). He finished second to outfielder Mike Kreevich in batting average (.301 to .293). Besides Jakucki, the Browns boasted a solid staff with Jack Kramer (17-13, 2.49 ERA), Nels Potter (19-7, 2.83) and Bob Moncrief (13-8, 3.08). The Browns held off a Detroit team that featured a 29-game winner, Hal Newhouser (the eventual A.L. MVP and only pitching because he was 4-f due to a leaky heart valve), and a 27-game winner, Dizzy Trout.
Over in the National League, the Cardinals ran away with their third straight pennant. They finished 105-49, 14.5 games ahead of the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. Marty Marion, the Cardinals’ shortstop, won the MVP. He batted .267 with six home runs and 63 RBI. One of the first tall shortstops at 6-feet-2, writers called Marion “The Octopus” for his long arms and range.
The Cardinals also got a big year out of 23-year-old Stan Musial, who ripped 51 doubles, batted .347, and led the league with a .549 slugging percentage (Musial left the Cardinals to join the Navy after the season, missed all of 1945 and came back to help St. Louis win the 1946 pennant.) First baseman Ray Sanders batted .295 and led the team in RBI with 102. Mort Cooper (22-7, 2.46 ERA) headed up a strong starting staff that also included Max Lanier (17-12, 2.65) and Ted Wilks (17-4, 2.64).
The site of the 1944 World Series was Sportsman’s Park, located at N. Grand Avenue and Dodier Street in north St. Louis. Of note, the Browns owned the ballpark, and the Cardinals paid rent. The Browns were, in effect, the Cardinals’ landlord.
(I will be writing game-by-game summaries of the 1944 World Series. I hope you enjoy this look at one of the most exciting chapters in St. Louis sports history.)